REPRISE: The Question of Individual Responsibility for the Actions of One’s Nation
We Americans share a culture, a way of life, and a history built on our Constitution and a dedication to the rule of law.
Yet we also share responsibility for the actions of our government, of our president and political leaders, particularly those serving in the Senate and the House of Representatives whom we have elected. When they commit transgressions of our democratic political order, or kill innocent civilians in violation of the laws of war (humanitarian law) in foreign conflicts, we also share responsibility for their and our government’s actions.
Is this a radical proposition? I think not, not if we reason carefully about what it means to live in a democracy, or to give full life to that democracy through our own thoughts, beliefs, and actions.
What are we to make then of politicians who approve of, or look the other way, when gross violations of our democratic order are committed, by our politicians, our legislators, and those who support them?
If our politicians tell big lies to the population about what they are doing, or if the president, for example, tells monstrous lies on a constant basis, and we do not speak out, are we complicit in his lies? Do we thereby incur moral responsibility? When the consequences of such big lies lead to sharp curtailment in spending for social services for the poor, or disrupt our fundamental sense of right and wrong, our fundamental moral values, or our very belief in the concept of truth, are we individually responsible for the actions and events which may follow? When the president dismisses serious news reporting, backed by solid sources, as “fake news”, and we do nothing, are we not individually responsible for the erosion of a culture of truth, and of expertise based on facts?
Are we then complicit in the assault on the truth, or the very concept of truth itself? Without the concept and practice of telling the truth, of course, no government can be held accountable for its actions. A country can slide down the slippery slope that leads to authoritarianism and dictatorship, and the crimes a dictatorship might commit to maintain itself in power, to realize the misshapen ideals of a of government not based on the rule of law, not based on the concept of justice, and not even based on the concept of simple everyday fairness.
If that occurs, are individuals responsible in a moral sense? Are we responsible? Individually?
If America slides into dictatorship as Germany, one of the most educated and advanced industrial countries in the world at the time, did in the 1930s, will we then be responsible for the crimes our government may commit, as Germans after World War II were viewed by many as responsible, as guilty for the crimes of the Third Reich?